Posts filed under 'Martyrs'

1683: Lord Russell, Whig martyr

Add comment July 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1683 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London the great Whig parliamentarian William, Lord Russell was beheaded with a legendary want of dexterity by Jack Ketch.

The third son of the Earl (later Duke) of Bedford, Lord Russell emerged from a decade of comfortable obscurity in the Parliament’s back benches to become a leading exponent of the nascent Whigs* opposed to royal absolutism and to Catholicism — two heads of the same coin, for the Whigs, given that the heir presumptive James had controversially converted to Catholicism.

The national freakout from 1678 over an alleged “Popish Plot” to undo Old Blighty gave Russell his cause; his leadership of the resulting parliamentary bid to exclude James from royal succession made the gregarious Russell “the governing man in the House of Commons”.

Lord Russell was a man of great candour, and of general reputation; universally beloved and trusted; of a generous and obliging temper,” his friend Gilbert Burnet recorded of our man. “He had given such proofs of an undaunted courage and of an unshaken firmness, that I never knew any man have so entire a credit in the nation as he had.”

Russell was, Burnet allowed, “a slow man, and of little discourse, but he had a true judgment, when he considered things at his own leisure: his understanding was not defective; but his virtues were so eminent, that they would have more than balanced real defects, if any had been found in the other.”

Chief among those virtues was his wholehearted sincerity for his cause — a passion the source of both his renown, and his destruction. Russell was heard to espouse the view that James ought not merely be excluded from succession, but executed like his father.

Matters never quite approached that point, but the crisis provoked by the Exclusion Bill firebrands led King Charles II to dissolve parliament in 1681, depriving the Whigs of their legal perch. In the ensuing years politics played out not as legislation but conspiracy, and the crown’s rather more successful harassment of same: many of the chief Whig actors were driven offstage to scaffolds, dungeons, or continental exile.

The half-dozen most eminent Whigs remaining — to whom, besides Lord Russell, we number the king’s illegitimate son Monmouth, the Earl of Essex, Baron Howard of Escrick,** Algernon Sidney, and John Hampden† — formed a sort of informal Council of Six who met secretly to consider the bad options available to the fractured Whig movement. Some section of the wider Whig network in which this Council operated turned eventually to considering the most desperate of measures.

Their Rye House Plot schemed to waylay and assassinate the royal person near a fortified manor handily on the king’s route back to London from the Newmarket races. It was owned then by a radical former soldier of Cromwell‘s New Model Army.

It has been long debated to what extent any of the top Whigs knew of or actively participated in this Guy Fawkesian plot, or its complement, a projected armed rising of the sort that Monmouth would indeed mount in 1685. One school of thought is that the Tories seized it as an expedient to eviscerate the remaining Whig leadership by conflating the entire movement with a regicidal scheme; another is that the Whig insistence upon its martyrs’ innocence — and Lord Russell is the chief man in this pantheon — has amounted to a fantastic propaganda coup.‡

In June 1683, a salter who was in on the Rye House planning got a cold sweat and informed on the Whigs. This backstab earned a royal pardon for himself, and started a familiar policing sequence of incriminated conspirators turning crown’s evidence and informing in their turn on the next part of the network.

Many of the Whigs fled to the Netherlands, received there by the House of Orange which would seat itself on the English throne inside of six years.

Lord Russell, however, refused to fly. He landed in the Tower of London by the end of the month, to face trial as a traitor on the evidence of his association with other Whigs and his entertaining the plan of raising an armed revolt. The judge’s summation to the jury even underscored that “You have not Evidence in the Case as there was [in other Rye House cases] against the Conspirators to kill the King at the Rye. There was a direct Evidence of a Consult to kill the King, that is not given you in this Case: This is an Act of contriving Rebellion, and an Insurrection within the Kingdom, and to seize his Guards, which is urged an Evidence, and surely is in itself an Evidence, to seize and destroy the King.”

Lord Russell’s case shifted around the fringes of actual innocence — those plans for Insurrection within the Kingdom, he said, occurred sometimes at meetings he happened to attend but only off on the side, or without Lord Russell’s own involvement or support. (Speaking from the scaffold, he would several times insist that his acts were at worst misprision of treason, which was no longer a capital crime at this point.)

Against this the crown produced Lord Howard, a cravenly interested party to be sure, who saved his own skin by testifying that the six-headed cabal was down to planning the specifics of the places where a rebellion might best be stirred up, the procurements of arms and bankroll that would be necessary to same, and how to draw Scotland into the fray as an ally. “Every one knows my Lord Russell is a Person of great Judgment, and not very lavish in Discourse,” Howard allowed on the point of Russell’s active assent to the plans. “We did not put it to the Vote, but it went without Contradiction, and I took it that all there gave their Consent.”

David Hume would observe in his History of Great Britain that Russell’s “present but not part of it” parsing didn’t make for a very compelling story. “Russell’s crime fell plainly under the statute … his defence was very feeble.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of an 1825 painting of Lord Russell’s trial, commissioned of George Hayter by Lord Russell’s admiring kinsman John Russell, Duke of Bedford. John Russell also wrote a biography of his famous ancestor. The unbroken succession of Dukes of Bedford from William Russell’s father continues to the present day; the current Duke of Bedford, 15th of that line, is one of Britain’s richest men.

Conscious of the great pulpit his scaffold would offer, Lord Russell drafted with the aid of his wife a last statement vindicating his own person and the Whig cause that flew into print before the onlookers at Lincoln’s Inn Fields were dipping their handkerchiefs into his martyrs’ blood.

Nor did I ever pretend to a great readiness in speaking: I wish those gentlemen of the law who have it, would make more conscience int he use of it, and not run men down by strains and fetches, impose on easy and willing juries, to the ruin of innocent men: For to kill by forms and subtilties of law, is the worst sort of murder …

I never had any design against the king’s life, or the life of any man whatsoever; so I never was in any contrivance of altering the government. What the heats, wickedness, passions, and vanities of other men have occasioned, I ought not to be answerable for; nor could I repress them, though I now suffer for them.

These notices drew furious confutations from Tory pamphleteers aghast at the face these traitors had to forswear their malice against King Charles; a battle of broadsides to control the historical narrative ensued, and was resolved in the Whigs’ favor by the imminent conquest of power by the aforementioned House of Orange. The Whig-aligned William and Mary reversed Lord Russell’s attainder in 1689 — but that’s never stood in the way of historians’ debates.

In a much lower historical register, Lord Russell’s execution was egregiously bumbled by the London headsman Jack Ketch, who had to bash repeatedly at the man’s neck before he could remove it from the shoulders. It is largely from this event that Ketch derives his lasting reputation as an incompetent and/or sadistic butcher, mutually reinforcing with Russell’s martyr status.

Ketch would later claim in a published “Apologie” issued against “those grievous Obloquies and Invectives that have been thrown upon me for not Severing my Lords Head from his Body at one blow” that his prey

died with more Galantry than Discresion, and did not dispose him for receiving of the fatal Stroke in such a posture as was most suitable, for whereas he should have put his hands before his Breast, or else behind him, he spread them out before him, nor would he be persuaded to give any Signal or pull his Cap over his eyes, which might possibly be the Occasion that discovering the Blow, he somewhat heav’d his Body

and besides that Ketch “receav’d some Interruption just as I was taking Aim, and going to give the Blow.” How would you like it if someone came to your workplace and did that?

The damage to Ketch’s reputation was already done. Two years later, en route to the block for a subsequent failed bid to topple the Stuarts, the Duke of Monmouth tipped Ketch with the scornful charge not to “hack me as you did my Lord Russell.” When Ketch botched that execution too, he was nearly lynched — but escaped the scaffold to live on in Punch and Judy and in the English tongue as the definitive lowlife executioner.

* Short for “Whiggamores”, who were Covenanter rebels in the 1640s. “Tories”, by contrast, took their name from Irish Catholic outlaws: each party became known by the slur its foes attached to it.

** Yes, another one of those Howards: this Howard’s great-grandfather lost his head for the Ridolfi intrigue.

† Hampden survived the suppression of Whig intrigues long enough to coin the term “Glorious Revolution” when the Stuarts were finally overthrown

‡ See for instance Lois Schwoerer, "William, Lord Russell: The Making of a Martyr, 1683-1983" in Journal of British Studies, January 1985 for a skeptical-of-Russell reading of the evidence. “The government did not concoct the plot; it was frightened by the revelations, whatever use it made of them. There is no doubt that proposals for an insurrection of some kind were discussed; Russell’s impetuosity and extremism make it more likely than not that he was an active party to these discussions. What is in doubt, since nothing came of the discussions, is how far the parties had gone in developing a concrete plan for a rising.”

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1654: Gerard the conspirator, and the Portuguese envoy’s brother

Add comment July 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1654, the gore-soaked annals of Tower Hill added the names of two of Protectorate England’s highest criminals.

John Gerard was only an ensign from the army of the late King Charles I, but he gave his name to a one of the great royalist conspiracies of the 1650s.

Gerard — alternately rendered Gerrard or Gerhard by his contemporaries — led a plot to assassinate Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. It would ultimately yield some 40 arrests, enough to arouse suspicion that the entire thing was a trap laid as part of the vigorous counterespionage game between the exiled royal heir and the Puritan government.

Initially condemned to hang — which was indeed the fate on this same date of one fellow conspirator, schoolteacher Peter Vowell — Gerard successfully petitioned for beheading instead, where he made a great show of courage and fidelity.

When he came to (or rather leap’d upon) the Scaffold (for he was so far from flagging when to tread that Tragical stage, that many observ’d hos sprightfully he seem’d to skip up the steps to it, as if he had gone to dance there rather than to die) his grim Executioner presented himself to him, to whom with a cheerful smile he said, “Welcom honest friend”; And desiring to see his Ax, he took it into his hands, and kissing it, with a pretty glance of his eye (which was a natural loveliness in him) towards the Minister, he said, “This will do the Deed I warrant it.”

The Sheriff stopped him delivering an address he had scribbled down, rightly expecting that it tended to the seditious. Nothing daunted, Gerard prayed with his minister, and

[t]hen turning himself to the people, and putting off his Hat, he told them, That he was not permitted to speak a few words according to his intention, yet he doubted not but what he would have said would come to their eyes, thought it must not come to their ears: “But this I desire all to take notice of,” and this he spoke (with a double vehemence) “that I die a faithful subject and servant to King Charles the second, whom I pray God to bless and restore to his Rights; and had I ten thousand thousand lives I would gladly lay them all down thus for his service.”

Execution ceremonies of the period tended to the elaborate, and the condemned could not easily be balked of their featured role. Although the Sheriff interrupted him here, and pressed him under a scorching sun to reveal more conspirators, Gerard put him off and “call’d for some small beer” to quench his thirst, which he did indeed receive. Oh for the days when a traitor could kick back with a frosty during his execution.

[Gerard] calls for the Block: and viewing it (as with delight) laid himself down upon it to see how it would fit, and was so far from sinking at the sight of it, that he almost play’d with it: and rising quickly pulls a little paper-book out of his pocket, which he gave to the Minister, willing him to find that particular Prayer which was proper for that occasion, but the crowd being great, he could not quickly find it, so that he kneeled down with the book open a while in his hand as if he had read; but quickly shut it, and prayed with great expressions of fervency by himself.

When he had done, the Lieutenant said something to him (as it seems) concerning his Brother Charles that had witnessed agianst him; (I know not what the Lieutenant said, for he spake low) but Mr. Gerrard spake aloud, and replyed passionately, “O Christ Sir! I love my poor Brother with all my heart, he is but a youth and was terrified, I know how he was dealt with; tell him I love him as well as ever I lov’d him in my life.”

forgiving the Executioner and saluting the Minister with his last embrace and kisses, he bow’d himself to the stroak of death, with as much Christian meekness and noble courage mix’d together, as I believe was ever seen in any that had bled upon that Altar.


Much less the pitied by the Tower Hill crowd was the executioner’s second act that date, don Pantaleon de Sa.

This Iberian noble, in town while his brother the Count of Penaguiao negotiated a treaty, got into a quarrel and escalated it egregiously, descending on the tony New Exchange shopping center on The Strand with a score of armed retainers looking to get his satisfaction.

This would be offense enough but don Pantaleon compounded matters by actually shooting dead some luckless sod who only happened to resemble his recent antagonist. Cromwell had his men invade the diplomatic residence where don Pantaleon tried to claim refuge, an act that perhaps would have been accomplished by an angry mob had he not done so.

International affairs proceeded apace, the commerce of nations proving very much thicker than blood for the Portuguese ambassador. On the very morning of his brother’s execution, the Count signed his treaty and set sail for home from Gravesend, leaving his belligerent brother to pay the forfeit of English justice.

The fruit of such costly statecraft was an English-Portuguese affinity to long outlast the pains of Tower Hill.

The trading relationship cemented in the 1654 treaty set the stage for a political arrangement as well when Gerard’s beloved Charles II was restored to the throne and made a Portuguese princess his queen.

So profitably were English merchants rewarded for moving Portuguese freight that by the next century, long after anyone could remember don Pantaleon or his marketplace quarrel, Portuguese wine displaced French as Britons’ libation of choice.

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1731: Jose de Antequera, Paraguayan comunero rebel

Add comment July 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1731, Jose de Antequera had his head cut off in Lima for leading a comunero rebellion against the Spanish crown in Paraguay.

Antequera, a judge, began his revolution legally in 1721 by affirming an impeachment the city council of Asuncion (Paraguay’s present-day capital) against the unpopular Spanish governor. Antequera, conveniently, also happened to be the guy who would succeed the unpopular territorial governor.

The conflict between the two would-be governors spiraled into a wider revolt for local autonomy pitting criollo settlers against the crown, though it would likely be overstating matters to call this a true bid for independence. One notable sore spot between the two parties was the prerogatives of Jesuit Reductions: these mission settlements for Christianizing natives (particularly prominent in Paraguay for the Guarani people) had originally been placed at the far fringes of Spain’s New World reach, and they enjoyed a wide autonomy, sustaining themselves economically with the yerba mate trade. For the Guarani, these were also welcome refuges from the brutal encomiendas; Guarani militias stoutly repelled slave raiders.

For these prerogatives, the Jesuits and the Guarani were loyal to the Spanish crown as against the local settlers better inclined to view the Reductions (and the potential slaves who inhabited them) as assets they’d like to get their own hands around. Antequera accordingly expelled the Jesuits near Asuncio and for a few years his word was law in Paraguay. Guarani troops mustered by the crown helped put the rebellion down, taking Antequera into custody and forwarding him to the notoriously severe Marquis of Castelfuerte, the Peruvian viceroy.

Society at Lima was in [Antequera's] favor. Great efforts were made to delay his trial. But the viceroy was resolved to punish him, and sentence of death was passed. The judges, the university, the municipality, petitioned for pardon, as well as the people of all classes. The stern old marquis refused to listen, and Antequera was brought out for execution in the great square of Lima on July 5, 1731. There were cries for pardon, and the mob began to throw stones. Hearing the tumult, the viceroy came out on horseback and ordered his guards to fire. Antequera fell dead, as well as the two priests by his side, and several others. The viceroy then ordered the body to be taken to the scaffold and beheaded. His conduct received the approval of the king by decree of September, 1733. (Source)

The Spanish had not heard the end of Antequera.

During his imprisonment, Antequera befriended and inspired a fellow-prisoner named Fernando Mompo. After Antequera’s execution, Mompo returned to Paraguay brandishing the late rebel governor’s banner: “The authority of the commune is superior to that of the King himself!” Mompo launched a recrudescence of the comunero rebellion in the early 1730s. Mompo too shared Antequera’s fate.

A change in the political winds decades later led to the Spanish king Charles III himself expelling the Jesuits — and posthumously exonerating Jose de Antequera.

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1800: Suleiman al-Halabi, assassin of General Kleber

Add comment June 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1800 — which was the same date they buried his victim — the 23-year-old student Suleiman al-Halabi was put to death in Cairo for assassinating French General Jean Baptiste Kleber.

Casualty of the brief Napoleonic adventure in Egypt, Kleber had received supreme command of the expedition when Napoleon himself returned to France the previous year — a mission which involved running the English naval blockade that trapped the Armee d’Orient.

Kleber, a product of the French Revolution’s military meritocracy who had attained his rank capably suppressing the Vendee royalists, was certainly up to the martial tasks at hand. He routed a larger Ottoman-English-Mamluk force in March of 1800, and then smashed a revolt in Cairo.

But the Napoleonic invasion often figures as a periodization marker for this region: the germ of liberalism and nationalism that would tear apart the Ottoman Empire and set the scene for a recognizably modern Middle East. So it’s somewhat fitting that Kleber would be undone by a figure who could be lifted from the evening news,* the anti-occupation insurgent.

Suleiman al-Halabi (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a Syrian Kurd hailing from Aleppo. (“al-Halabi” means “of Aleppo”)

He had been in Cairo to study, but after a return visit home was induced by the Turks to attend himself to punishing the invader instead. He then made his way back to to Egypt where, disguising himself as a beggar, where he was able to approach the general innocuously and dagger him to death.

The French, of course, had just a few years before this point introduced its most distinctive execution device in place of the ghastly old methods, and employed it with egalite for commoner and king alike. Nor was France, as an imperial power, reluctant about exporting its invention to the every corner of earth.

But in this particular instance, the French decided to prioritize, er, cultural sensitivity.

The committee, after carrying through the trial with all due solemnity and process, thought it necessary to follow Egyptian customs in its application of punishment; it condemned the assassin to be impaled after having his right hand burned; and three of the guilty sheikhs to be beheaded and their bodies burned.

The “guilty sheikhs” in question were men to whom the killer had confided — not his plan, exactly, but the fact that he was on a jihad mission. Hey, close enough.

As for Suleiman al-Halabi himself,

The executioner Barthèlemy sat down on Suleiman’s belly, drew a knife from his pocket, and made a large incision to widen the rectum, then hammered the point of the stake into it with his mallet. Then he bound the patient’s arms and legs, raised the stake the air and mounted it in a prepared hole. Suleiman lived for four hours, and he had lived longer save that, during the absence of Barthèlemy, a soldier gave him a drink which caused his immediate death.

(Impaling victims could live for agonizing days, but the water caused Suleiman, mercifully, to quickly bleed out.)

Not content with going all Vlad the Impaler, the French then paid homage to the invasion’s scientific sub-theme** by shipping Suleiman’s remains back to France for use as an anthropological exhibit.† His skull still remains at the Musee de l’Homme to this day. What’s left in his homeland(s) is a martyr’s memory.

According to the scholar al-Jabarti, whose chronicle is one of the principal sources on this episode, the investigation indicated that Suleiman undertook his mission for no ideology save his family’s desperate need of the purse the Porte was willing to offer. But in the ensuing decades’ growth of nationalism and, eventually, anti-colonialism, the brave young Muslim dying on a spike to slay the French commander could not help but be viewed in an exalted light. (Notably, at the acme of Arab nationalism, the Egyptian writer Alfred Farag celebrated Suleiman as an avatar of resistance in a 1965 play. “I do not kill for revenge,” Farag’s Suleiman avers — and when pressed for the reason, he has a one-word reply: “Justice.”)

* Indeed, the name has been in the news: there’s a Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood in Aleppo that has seen fighting during the ongoing Syrian civil war. Since it’s even a Kurdish neighborhood one can’t but suspect that it’s named for the man featured in this post; however, I haven’t been able to establish that with certainty. If any reader knows, a comment would be most welcome.

** Napoleon brought a corps of scientists and intellectuals along on his invasion, kicking off the modern Egyptology craze. His mission also uncovered the Rosetta Stone — although that artifact now resides in the British Museum because of the aforementioned naval blockade.

† According to Dark Trophies: Hunting and the Enemy Body in Modern War, phrenologists hailed Suleiman’s skull as an outstanding exemplar of criminality and fanaticism.

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Feast Day of St. Vitus

Add comment June 15th, 2014 Headsman

June 15 is the feast date of the early Christian saint and martyr Vitus.

The 6th century roster Martyrologium Hieronymianum gives us “In Sicilia, Viti, Modesti et Crescentiae”. From this nub grew a legend of the young child of a Roman Senator who turned to Christianity and would not apostatize, fleeing finally to Lucania with his tutor Modestus and his nanny Crescentia and eventually exorcising a demon possessing the son of the Christian-hunting, Empire-quartering Roman sovereign Diocletian. They were all — boy, tutor, and nanny — tortured to death for their troubles; that occurred either by means of or (manifesting God’s customary disdain for the pagan persecutors) after surviving execution in a boiling pot, which has become Vitus’s most typical iconographical emblem. (For example, as seen on the coat of arms of the Austrian town Sankt Veit im Pongau.)


The Martyrdom of St. Vitus, anonymous c. 1450 painting

This story doesn’t have much historical merit, but shrines and chapels to Vitus date as far back as the 5th century so Vitus, whomever he was, had real importance to early Christians.

His cult became especially prominent in medieval central Europe. Prague’s imposing Gothic cathedral bears his name, because Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia* allegedly retrieved for it the saint’s arm in a reliquary.**

While many places are dedicated to St. Vitus in Germany, Hungary, and Croatia, the man has red-letter treatment in Serbia — owing to this also being the date in 1389 that the Serbs’ Tsar Lazar was martyred by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo. As a result, the feast date Vidovdan is a major celebration in Serbia (and to some extent Bulgaria and Macedonia), where it is observed on June 28th — the Gregorian date presently corresponding to the Julian calendar’s June 15th.

The same Vitus who cheers Balkan nationalists trod a completely different path into medical textbooks.

For centuries, Europeans were known to break out in curious ecstatic mass dancing, even sometimes dancing themselves to death. Generally believed today to be psychosocial afflictions, these dancing manias became widely associated with St. Vitus (his patronage includes both dancers and epileptics), whose intercession would be sought to calm the capering souls.

Dancing manias stopped happening in the 17th century or so, but the link between Vitus and involuntary rollick gave the name St. Vitus’s Dance to the condition Syndenham’s chorea — which is characterized by uncontrolled dance-like movement.

* The very Good King Wenceslaus who looked down on the feast of Stephen.

** Speculatively, Sanct Vid might have been selected for Christian veneration in this area to facilitate replacement of the similarly-named Slavic god Svantovid. An active (albeit declining) pagan community persisted in Prague as late as the 12th century.

As with most Slavic deities, Svantovid’s exact characteristics and the extent of his veneration are very poorly documented; however, in 1168, the Wendish fortress of Arkona was conquered by the Danes and the forced Christianization of its inhabitants is commemorated in Laurits Tuxen‘s late 19th century image of Archbishop Absalon casting down Arkona’s idol of Svantovid. (It’s also commemorated by the name of the neo-pagan Russian metal band Arkona.)

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1155: Arnold of Brescia

Add comment June 4th, 2014 Headsman

At some point in the first weeks of June 1155 — nobody knows the exact date, but it precedes June 18 — the Roman authorities disposed of Arnold of Brescia.

For a decade the tongue of a fragile new Roman Republic, Arnold was a student of the cutting-edge theologian (and castrated romantic) Peter Abelard. Arnold held the temporal pretensions of the Vatican invalid, a theology sublimely according with the popular revolt that from 1143 overturned Rome’s overweening princes and even slew a pope in a melee on the Capitoline.

The Senate long forsaken was re-founded by this new Republic and an equestrian order re-founded to resume to the rights of a now-growing middle rank. The slain pope’s successor became a refugee tenant of the neighboring cities, orchestrating crusades against Turks, Moors, and Wends — but dying at Tivoli in 1153 still awaiting a prince who would restore his own person to the authority of the Eternal City.

That prince, however, had just begun to stir. The Hohenstaufen king Frederick I had concluded in the months before Pope Eugenius’s death a compact to restore the pontiff, which policy dovetailed nicely with an intent to show the German power against other wayward cites in Italy. It was Frederick’s Italian subjects, and conquests, who gave this man the distinctive name by which history recalls him: Barbarossa, or “red-beard”.

All these years — or at least, from 1145, when he surfaced in the rebellious city from past years’ exile in Zurich — Arnold of Brescia’s “eloquence thundered over the seven hills.” (Gibbon)

Blending in the same discourse the texts of Livy and St. Paul, uniting the motives of Gospel, and of classic, enthusiasm, he admonished the Romans how strangely their patience and the vices of the clergy had degenerated from the primitive times of the church and the city. He exhorted them to assert the inalienable rights of men and Christians; to restore the laws and magistrates of the republic; to respect the name of the emperor: but to confine their shepherd to the spiritual government of his flock. Nor could his spiritual government escape the censure and control of the reformer; and the inferior clergy were taught by his lessons to resist the cardinals, who had usurped a despotic command over the twenty-eight regions or parishes of Rome.

The absentee pope excommunicated Arnold in 1148. It was to no effect until Barbarossa’s legions neared the city.

As King Frederick approached, Pope Adrian IV* applied a deft turn of the screw by laying Rome itself under an interdict, depriving his quarrelsome flock of both spiritual balm and pilgrim revenue and at long last forcing the heresiarch’s ejection.

Arnold was seized in Tuscany and delivered to the Roman curia for punishment; the record of when or where this occurred is lost, but it is specified in the particular that his corpse was reduced to ashes that were scattered to the Tiber — proof against the prospect of a plebeian graveside shrine.

On June 18 even as his soldiers tamed Rome’s resisting republicans, Barbarossa accepted the crown of the Holy Roman Empire from the hands of Pope Adrian in St. Peter’s Basilica.**

Though Arnold had vanished into the Tiber’s silt, the thirst of his former flock for spiritual succor beyond that which the worldly Vicar of Christ could offer did not die so easily. Succeeding movements — indeed, perhaps, one continuous movement — took up Arnold’s objection to the clergy’s worldly emoluments and his summons to plain virtue. There are the Arnoldists to start with, but a bare few years after Arnold’s death emerge Peter Waldo of the heretical Waldensians, as well as the Cathars in southern France; a generation on finds St. Francis of Assisi, giving way to 13th and 14th centuries thick with oft-suppressed popular reform currents — the Beguines, the Apostolic Brethren, even the Fraticelli who criticized other followers of the aforementioned St. Francis for having already abandoned the poverty of his order.

Later Protestants would claim all these, and Arnold too (Arnold reportedly opposed infant baptism), as their forebears, which is why we have the nice Colosseum’s-shadow picture above from Foxe’s Martyrs’ Mirror. Just how literally one should take that lineage might be a matter of debate, but there is little doubt that Arnold of Brescia’s critique maintained its potency into that era and keeps it still in the modern age — one reason that the incinerated firebrand could still make a powerful subject for a risorgimento writer like Giovannini Battista Niccolini 700 years later.

* Born Nicholas Breakspear, Adrian remains to this day the only English pope ever.

** Popes and Holy Roman Emperors were most usually rivals rather than allies in peninsular politics; indeed, the Roman Republic had issued its own summons to Frederick’s predecessor to come to its aid — and rule Rome with its support — to humble the pretensions of the papacy. Arguably, Barbarossa missed a trick by not availing that potential alliance and instead exalting the pontifex maximus in the manner of his coronation: Barbarossa probably thought so himself often enough during his running rivalry over the ensuing generation with Pope Alexander III.

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1942: Vladislav Vancura, “Marketa Lazarova” author

Add comment June 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1942, leftist Czech novelist Vladislav Vancura was executed at Prague’s Kobylisy shooting range.

An “unsung giant” of European letters, the Bohemian doctor burst onto the literary scene in the 1920s with Peka? Jan Marhoul (Baker Jan Marhoul) and Pole orná a vále?ná (Fields to Plough, Fields of War). But he was notable for a remarkable perspicacity in style, genre, and artistic perspective throughout his career. He’s often referred to as a poet in prose, and maybe for this reason was equally keen on writing for and directing cinema.

Milan Kundera credited Vancura with “probably the richest vocabulary that any Czech writer has ever had; a vocabulary in which the language of every era is preserved, in which words from the Bible of Kralice [the first complete translation of the Bible into Czech] stand humbly side by side with modern argot.”

His greatest commercial success and possibly his crowning achievement was Marketa Lazarova, a short novel (120 pages in the original Czech) set amid a feud of nobles in he Middle Ages. Only tranlated into English in 2013, it “does for Czech literature something akin to what James Joyce did for English-language literature with Ulysses: breaking with the realism that previously dominated to open up a new frontier in the realm of style.”

Here’s an excerpt (via):

Folly scatters without rhyme or reason. Lend an ear to this tale of a place in the county of Mladá Boleslav, in the time of the disturbances, when the king strove for the safety of the highways, having cruel troubles with the nobles, who conducted themselves downright thievishly, and what is worse, who shed blood practically laughing out loud. You have become truly too sensitive from musing upon our nation’s nobility and fair manners, and when you drink, you waste the cook’s water, spilling it ‘cross the table, but the men of whom I speak were an unruly and devilish lot. A rabble which I cannot compare to anything else than stallions. Precious little cared they of that which you account as important. Comb and soap! Why, they did not heed even the Lord’s commandments.

‘Tis said that there were countless such ruffians, but this story concerns itself with none save the family whose name most surely calls to mind Václav unjustly. Shifty nobles they were! The eldest amidst this bloody time was baptized with a graceful name, but forgot it and called himself Kozlík till the time of his beastly death.

Vancura’s death was plenty beastly too, albeit not particularly surprising: Communist avant-garde artists in German-occupied Slavic countries didn’t usually fare the best during the war years, and Vancura compounded his risk by taking active part in the resistance. He was among hundreds of Czechs arrested, tortured, and executed in the bloody German crackdown that followed the May 27, 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

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1795: Ignac Martinovics and the Magyar Jacobins

Add comment May 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1795, Ignac Martinovics was beheaded in Budapest with other leaders of a Hungarian Jacobin conspiracy.

A true Renaissance man, Ignac (Ignatius) Martinovics (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Hungarian) earned doctorates from the University of Vienna as both a scientist and a theologian.

He ditched a youthful commitment to the Franciscan order and went on a European tour with a Galician noble named Count Potoczki,* rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lalande and Condorcet.**

This journey stoked Martinovics’s political interests along with his scientific ones.

After spending the 1780s as a university instructor at Lwow, the ambitious scholar became the Austrian emperor’s “court chemist” — a position that got pegged back almost immediately upon Martinovics taking it by the 1792 death of the scientifically inclined Emperor Leopold II.

This at least gave Martinovics ample time to devote to his interest in the political secret societies coalescing in sympathy with the French Revolution. Despite his authorship of tracts such as Catechism of People and Citizens, his overall stance in this movement is debatable; Martinovics was also a secret police informant, and some view him as more adventurer than firebrand.

But the adventures would worry the Hapsburg crown enough for martyrs’ laurels.

Tiring of whatever gambit he was running in the imperial capital, Martinovics returned to Hungary and marshaled a revolutionary conspiracy by fraudulently representing himself as the emissary of the Parisian Jacobins.

About fifty Hungarian conspirators were arrested when this plot was broken up, resulting in seven executions. These “Magyar Jacobins” are still honored at Budapest’s Kerepesi cemetery.


(cc) image from Dr Varga József.

* A much later Count Potoczki was assassinated by a Ukrainian student named Miroslav Sziczynski (Sichinsky) in 1908, who was in turn death-sentenced for the murder. Sziczynski won a commutation, and was eventually released from prison, emigrated to the United States, and became a respectable statesman for the Ukrainian national cause.

** See Zoltan Szokefalvi-Nagy in “Ignatius Martinovics: 18th century chemist and political agitator,” Journal of Chemical Education, 41, no. 8 (1964).

† Martinovics’s chemistry experimentation in this period led him to oppose Lavoisier‘s theories of combustion. The two shared the same fate, whatever their differing hypotheses.

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1866: Mokomoko and the Maori killers of Carl Volkner

Add comment May 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1866, five Maori men hanged for the murder of a German proselytizer.

Hesse-born Carl Sylvius Völkner* arrived in New Zealand as a Lutheran missionary in 1849; by 1861, he was directing an Anglican-run mission at OpotikiOpotiki, the center of Maori Te Whakatohea territory.

Unfortunately for Volkner, his mission to win souls overlapped with the British mission to win land.

This same early 1860s period saw a sharpening of the European-Maori conflict on the North Island where Volkner kept his mission — the bloodshed in turn fostering the militant Pai Marire or Hau Hau faith in place of the settlers’. Though the Te Whakatohea weren’t directly involved in this war, they had felt its effects: refugees, food shortages, disease outbreaks.

Volkner, who was seen by Maori as a pro-government character and a British spy,** and warned that under the fraught circumstances he might be wise to extend his most recent trip to Auckland indefinitely and wait for things to simmer down.

He did not heed that warning.

On March 2, 1865, the day after Volkner’s return to Opotiki, a group of Pai Marire hanged the missionary to a willow tree outside his Church of St. Stephen, then butchered the dead body.

The Pai Marire leader Kereopa Te Rau then preached from the church’s pulpit with Volkner’s severed head at his side, in the course of which he tore the eyeballs from his grisly prop and, calling one “the Queen” and the other “Parliament”, theatrically devoured them. (Kereopa Te Rau is nicknamed “Kai whatu”, “the eyeball eater”.)

Old eyeball eater would eventually hang for this display as well, but he avoided capture until the 1870s — so this narrative takes its leave of him here.

The slaughter of the European evangelist at the very steps of the protomartyr’s church in turn fired the fury of white New Zealand.

The most immediate response was the government’s landing 500 soldiers in Opotiki in September 1865. From there they raided throughout Te Whakatohea territory (confiscating some 240,000 hectares that would feed white settlers’ surging demand for real estate) and put crops to the torch until the tribe surrendered up some 20 chiefs for punishment of the Volkner affair.

Five of those eventually hanged for their participation: Heremita Kahupaea, Hakaraia Te Rahui, Horomona Propiti and Mikaere Kirimangu … and a man named Mokomoko who was then and remains now the most controversial execution of the bunch.

Mokomoko’s guilt was sharply disputed by eyewitnesses who gave conflicting accounts of whether he was even present at the church on March 2. It was Mokomoko’s rope that strangled Carl Volkner, but the man himself insisted that he was not present. (The three witnesses who placed him on the scene said he carried the rope, suggesting participation far exceeding a bystander.)

Maori tradition preserved Mokomoko as an emblem of wrongful persecution, along with his song Tangohia mai te taura i taku kaki kia waiata au i taku waiata (Take the rope from my neck that I may sing my song):

Violent shaking will not rouse me from my sleep
They treat me like a common thief
It is true that I embrace eternal sleep
For that is the lot of a man condemned to die.

Shielded from the harsh light
With narrow eyes I reflect on the retribution taken at Hamukete
Remember how I was taken on board ship (chained)
The memory of it burns me with shame.

Bring me justice from distant lands to break my shackles
Where the sun sets is a government in Europe
It is for them to say that I must hang
Then shut me in my coffin box.

Under pressure from Mokomoko’s descendants, latter-day New Zealand has made a number of gestures of apology for Mokomoko’s hanging over the past 20-odd years, culminating in a posthumous pardon.

* A copse of rocks sprouting out of New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty is named for our man — the Volkner Rocks, also known as Te Paepae o Aotea.

** He sent reports to the government about subversive activity.

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1559: The remains of David Joris, Anabaptist fugitive

Add comment May 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1559, the corpse of “Johann van Brugge” — recently exposed as underground Anabaptist leader David Joris, even though Brugge/Joris was three years dead — was burned in Basel.

The flame-bearded Joris (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Dutch) was a glass-painter by trade who came to the fore of the Anabaptist movement following its catastrophe at Muenster.

His home city of Delft in 1528 had flogged him and bored his tongue for his religious scruples, but Joris maintained a strong following among the re-baptized in that city. Many of those followers had occasion to try their faith against the torturers’ tongs, and dozens of arrestees impressively concealed their leader’s whereabouts from his enemies. The man’s own mother was executed in 1539.

He could only duck in and out of Delft — once he had to slip out in a basket innocuously loaded onto a boat* — or any other city. From the 1530s, his was a life on the run in Reformation Europe, where Anabaptists were no safer from Protestants than they were from Catholics.

(Sample dangerous heresy: Joris was a very early adopter of the idea that the devil was best understood as an allegorical figure, not an actual entity.)

With a literal price on his head he wandered to Strassburg, to England, back to the continent in Westphalia and Oldenburg, Strassburg again, then Antwerp, and on to Basel, Switzerland in 1544.

In Deventer in 1542 his ecstatic Wonder Boeck was printed. (We recommend the engravings.)

In Basel our hunted man was able to settle in as Brugge and live out the balance of his life, still pouring out voluminous writings in secret — a very impressive retirement considering his notoriety and his distinctive facial hair. Joris was in his fifties when he died: the years of rough living on the run had done him no favors.

Three years after his death, his son-in-law — who disagreed with Joris theologically — exposed his real identity. Basel had nothing left to do about but to visit on his bones the punishment David Joris’s living flesh escaped to the end of his days.

* From Gary Waite’s “Staying Alive: The Methods of Survival as Practiced by an Anabaptist Fugitive, David Joris” in the January 1987 Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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